The refugee and immigration crises around the world have been mined for content and stories, both real and fictitious, for several years now. And while common themes like racism, poverty, and war have been explored quite a few times, the feeling of detachment and isolation hasn’t been given nearly as much attention or depth. That very real aspect is given superb treatment by writer/director Ben Sharrock with Limbo, which finally gets a stateside release after being nominated for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut at the BAFTAs earlier this year.
Set in the Uist Islands in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, Sharrock’s minimalist tale centers on four refugees living in a shared small house while they wait for the resolution of their asylum applications. Amir El-Masry stars as Omar, a role for which he was nominated for Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards. Omar is a Syrian refugee who fled the civil war. His parents settled in Istanbul, and his brother Nabil (Kais Nashef) stayed behind to fight with the rebels. Omar, a pacifist, seeks to serve and retain his national identity via his music, as he is a trained oud player (a large-bellied 11-string guitar without frets). He lives with Farhad (Vikash Bhai, who reminds me strongly of Rizwan Manji in both acting style and appearance), an Afghani who’s been waiting almost three years for his answer, and Africans Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), who pose as brothers, the former of whom retaining the quixotic ambition of playing football for Chelsea.
The quartet experiences low-key racism, usually in the form of teenagers warning Omar not to blow anything up right before offering him a ride, or an old lady seeing them at the town center and scurrying off on her scooter the moment they say hello. They must also, along with every other refugee in the area, attend mandatory “cultural awareness” classes to aid in their assimilation. Led by a married couple named Helga and Boris (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard, respectively), these sessions are delightfully awkward and stilted. The film even opens up on a lesson called “Sex: Is A Smile An Invitation?” where Helga gives Boris signals to dance with her to 80s club music before forcefully removing his hands and outright slapping him if he makes any attempt at human contact. It’s part of the bleak comedy that somehow charms its way into your system to make you smile even in the midst of tragedy.
But the core conceit that Sharrock attempts to get across is that stifling lack of contact. Omar carries his oud (inside its case) with him wherever her goes, because it’s essentially his only link to the life he left behind. The particular windswept island where they reside is so remote that a mobile signal can only be received at the top of the highest hill, necessitating a singular phone booth for any outside communications. As winter sets in, the island becomes bleak and indiscernible thanks to snowfall and fog.
Sharrock is turning this island, and Omar’s situation, into a living purgatory. Over the last three years I’ve made a point to bring up any time a film is presented in a 4:3 box format aspect ratio, because there’s almost always a subtext to its use. Here, Sharrock does it to literally keep Omar stuck in the middle of the screen at nearly all times. The frame is tight throughout the film, with slow pans from person to person in both serious and comical moments. Of particular note is the postal van coming up to their cul-de-sac, stopping at every house but that of the four migrants, pulling all the way up the drive, killing the engine, delivering the mail, and getting back into the van (blasting opera and classical music on the radio the whole way) in a silly routine where all the lads can do is stare. Yet Sharrock keeps the shot very tight on their faces, choosing to have us watch their suffering in the moment rather than the moment itself. For Omar in particular this becomes a recurring theme. He’s always in the middle, as if the cut off sides of the screen represent the home he left and the future he could possibly have. The resolution pays off this concept in gorgeous terms.
But even within the Wes Anderson-esque light comedy, the purgatory is real for all of them. The threat of deportation looms every day, with even the slightest infraction causing people to be removed from the island permanently, condemned to their own Hell. Every encounter Omar makes with a new person, even something as silly as a girl handing out tour flyers for a dolphin she and her dad saw once, contains that hidden degree of danger. He wants to work and send money to his parents, and he’s even invited to work under the table at a fishery, but until he’s granted asylum he can’t, and that very hesitancy saves his hide later on as the lot of the workers are arrested. Because of this, Omar must remain detached, even though internally he’s crying out for a connection, a semblance of normalcy in an impossible situation. He found his own way out of the inferno, but his Dante needs a Virgil to guide him towards paradise, and the best he’s got is Farhad, who dreams of an office job and steals a chicken, naming it after Freddie Mercury.
This is a very strong first effort from Ben Sharrock, succeeding because of its blunt honesty, empathetic humor, and fairly gorgeous cinematography to illustrate the isolation of Omar and his erstwhile friends. It’s a human story, not just for our protagonists, but for the locals as well, because even the ones who give in to their baser, xenophobic instincts, prove to be generally good people who live and let live. In the end, that’s really all that refugees are seeking, a chance to live. They just have to get out of the middle and cross over.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever met a refugee? If you were separated from your family for a long time, what comfort food would you miss the most? Let me know!